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Keeping 9th Graders on Track Can Move Grad Rate, Research Finds

Students who end their 9th grade year on track are four times more likely to earn a diploma than those who fall off-track.

That research got officials with the Chicago Public Schools beginning in 2007 to focus more intentionally on helping high school freshman stay engaged.

Their efforts paid off.

The district's freshman on-track rate  rose from 57 percent in 2007 to 84 percent in 2013.

Freshmen who are "on-track" to graduate were defined as those who have at least five credits by the of the year and no more than one semester F in a core class.

Now researchers hope their experience can be a model for other districts. Another report from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) finds that those improvements were sustained in 10th and 11th grades, followed by large increases in graduation rates.

The graduation rate in Chicago has climbed from 47 percent in 1999 to 69 percent in 2014, and the district projects an 84 percent graduation rate for the class of 2018. Researchers say the increase in recent years (since 2011) is largely attributable to the focus on keeping freshman on track.

The reseachers found being on track in the 9th grade was a better predictor of high school graduation than race, income, neighborhood where the student lives, and prior test scores combined.

Starting with a system that was "beyond broken," the intervention has not only improved the success of all groups of students, African-American and Latino males have improved the most, according to Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago. Performance gains are "moving most quickly for students who have struggled the longest and, frankly, many had written off," he said at a briefing on the research in Washington last week.

Buoyed by the powerful 9th grade predictor and subsequent success, researchers from Chicago would like to take their tools to scale. Knowles said they are "sitting on gold" and are eager for advice about possible policy implications. To share the findings and get feedback on how to proceed, EducationCounsel, a Washington-based policy education consulting firm, gathered policy analysts and education leaders for the briefing.

If Chicago could make such strides over the course of five superintendents, two mayors, widespread school closures, and strikes, Knowles said other districts seeking to move the needle on graduation should be encouraged.

Instead of blaming outside forces, the schools began to look internally about ways to improve, said Elaine Allensworth, a researcher at the University of Chicago and director of CCSR. The real turning point came in 2008 with an accountability system and regular delivery of real-time, easy-to-use data reports. The information on attendance and grades on assignments helped teachers flag students early who were having difficulty.

"The data forced teachers to reach out to students and find out the reasons for their problems," said Allensworth. People often think students fail the 9th grade because academics are getting harder, but that is not necessarily the case, the researchers discovered. Often, students struggle with increased freedom and responsibility in high school. There are also issues with peers, safety, and family responsibilities. When teachers only see a student for an hour a day, it can be harder to monitor and support them, she said.

"We found if we can get a student to have a successful 9th grade transition, it sticks," said Allensworth.

To make the approach work, the researchers noted that schools need regular data, support from district and school leadership, time for collaboration among teacher teams, and focus on the individual student needs for students off track. They added that the intervention was not costly, schools were given latitude in how to use the information, and seeing quick results helped garner support.

There has been a shift among teachers in how they see their jobs and their role in helping students, said Allensworth. "Before, teachers would see themselves as teachers of subjects, " she said. "Now they see their responsibility as helping kids succeed in their class."

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